There’s an interesting article about dying languages, but more than that, it’s also an interesting snippet into why different cultures use the words they do.
IF you want to tell someone where to go in the dying language of the Monchak, you d better have an intimate knowledge of the river currents in Mongolia, because that s how the verb go is expressed in Monchak: upstream or downstream a bit or a bunch, never mind that there s no stream in sight, or maybe there are a lot of streams going every which way. In Tofa, a dying Siberian language, that reptile you hope not to step on as you go is called a ground fish, not the slithering terror we know as a snake.
Which, in my mind, goes back to the theory / story/ old wives tale about how there are 133 (or some other ridiculously high number of) words for snow in an Inuit language. No, sorry, don’t know which one it’s supposed to be.
Different languages force their speakers to pay attention to different things, says K. David Harrison…
Makes sense to me. In my mind, it’s all about an attempt at bringing more clarity to the conversation. If you’re an Inuit, you’d probably want to be more specific in your description of snow. Snow that’s big, wet, and sloppy is completely different from snow that’s light, crisp, dry, and very flaky.
But more than that, it’s been my experience (not that I have that much of it) that different cultural groups need words to describe their different experiences.
Even in English, the Mennonites I know from southern Manitoba speak of zweibach (which I could be spelling wrong), a sort of double decker bun, the top knob being much smaller than the bottom part. I don’t know what function the top knob serves, but they were always a hit when we had them as a child, especially fresh out of the oven.
Faspa, another word from Plautdeutsch but used in English in the Mennonite communities I’m a part of, was used at every major holiday – Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and so on – where a very large meal was served at lunch, and then, instead of a regular supper, we would snack. Graze, even. But in the family, we don’t talk of snacks, we talk about faspa.
Of course, that’s borrowing words, but it’s all related, isn’t it?
Then there’s the Canadian habit of speaking of travelling distances in terms of time. "Oh, that’s about two hours away." I know of no other people who do this except Canadians. My theory? It’s because of the change from Imperial to metric. While Canada’s closely connected to the UK, we’re also neighbors to the US. We can’t decide who to emulate. Do we express ourselves using the metric as is used in the UK, Europe, and pretty much the rest of the world? Or do we express ourselves in Imperial as the Americans do? No, we do neither – we talk in time. Avoids that one nicely.
But then, we also can’t decide on whether to use color or colour, grey or gray. We’re firmly planted in being wishy washy.
Point being that our language adapted to what was culturally relevant. (I think – I am, after all, no expert.)
As for us writers, how is all this relevant? After all, the article is about dead languages… Here’s the thing. If we’re aware that a group of people describe distances or travelling in terms of rivers because the area they live in is full of rivers, then that gives us insight into the culture and what’s important to that group of people. We can use insights like this to make our own writing richer, to bring our worlds more alive. We can use this to create better stories.
- There’s a new online language learning site
- Planning Time
- Story Length
- Today’s Writing Progress – 8 Nov 2005
- Mad Challenge
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